Leadership & Management

Jeff Raikes: 5 Things That Make a Great Business Leader

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation CEO says the best managers "know when they need to roll up their sleeves and make something happen."

February 01, 2009

| by Dave Murphy


Jeff Raikes, who grew up on a Nebraska farm, dreamed of a career setting agriculture policy for the U.S. government when he came to Stanford in the 1970s. Three decades later, he influences agriculture in a way he never dreamed. As CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the major philanthropic projects he supervises helps small farmers in the developing world.

Speaking on Feb. 27 at the student-run “View From The Top” series, the former president of Microsoft’s Business Division recalled a lesson from his father, who returned to work on the family farm during the Great Depression: “It was good for me to have a plan, but it was important to be open to opportunity.”

Raikes’ Stanford Plan A was a bit shaky: He came largely because he’d heard Stanford had a great business school, not realizing there was no undergraduate business major. His Plan B included studying for a BS in engineering-economics systems, which he would receive in 1980, and learning about a fresh computer called an Apple, which he thought would be great for helping his brother run the farm.

“Because I had always worked on the farm, I had never done any job interviews,” Raikes recalled. “So when Apple Computer came on to campus, I said, ‘Well, I’ll get some experience doing a job interview.’ Six months later, I was the head of VisiCalc.”


Do what you love to do, and something that's valuable for the company.
Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

As he worked on Apple’s spreadsheet application, Raikes discovered that his passion was software. But he also realized that to pursue that passion, he needed to be part of a software company. He left Apple for a firm that had about 100 employees and a goal to create a suite of office products: Microsoft.

“Steve Jobs called up and yelled at me, telling me Microsoft was going to go out of business,” Raikes recalled.

But as Raikes went through what he calls his 30-year “detour” on the way to the Gates Foundation, he learned an essential lesson: “Do what you love to do, and something that’s valuable for the company. If you can do that, you’ll probably do very well.”

He learned about leadership by watching people like former Microsoft President Jon Shirley, who would listen and ask questions through an hour-long meeting, then tell people how to move forward. “Great leaders not only manage through their people, they not only do a good job of coaching and supporting their people, but they know when they need to roll up their sleeves and make something happen.”

Raikes also learned by talking with people like baseball manager Lou Piniella, who in the 1990s was with the Seattle Mariners, a team that Raikes partly owns. Whatever baseball question Raikes asked — What makes a great pitcher? What do you look for in a lineup? — Piniella answered with several specifics, taking a complex topic and getting to its essence.

After Piniella listed the five things that make a great baseball manager, Raikes realized that the same skills apply in business: getting along with people, helping workers perform near their peak, pursuing public relations and strategic thinking, and getting along with your bosses.

Although he has been with a nonprofit foundation only six months, Raikes already knows that one significant difference is how complex capital allocation decisions can be. Rather than some formula for return on investment, the foundation must decide whether it’s more important, say, to save children’s lives through immunizations, or get more American children to graduate from high school, or — of course — help those farmers in poor countries get out of poverty.

Raikes offered career advice, drawing on his farming experience. “What everybody wants to do is drive the tractor. But there are lots of days when you have to scoop up the manure.” He said young workers sometimes don’t understand that all jobs have drawbacks, and they need to try to maximize the things they enjoy and do best.

But don’t try to do it all. “That’s just a formula for failure. Because what you learn is that if you try to do it all, you aren’t going to do anything very well.”

That goes for work-life balance as well. Rather than just wanting more time off, Raikes suggests setting priorities for your personal life, choosing something you enjoy, then making the necessary tradeoffs.

“You’ll be more efficient in how you use your time. Probably even more important, you’ll be healthier, you’ll be happier, and you’ll be likelier to have a long and successful career.”

The “View From The Top” speakers series brings well-respected leaders of business and social sector communities to campus to share their views of leadership. It is operated in conjunction with the school’s Center for Leadership Development and Research.

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